Tale of jealous Moor presented with passion and power

Othello (Christopher C. Austin III) consults with his trusted lieutenant, Iago (Matthew Michael Moore), in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Othello (photo by Richard Ades)
Othello (Christopher C. Austin III, left) consults with “honest Iago” (Matthew Michael Moore) in Actors’ Theatre’s production of Othello (photos by Richard Ades)

 

By Richard Ades

A stirring production of Othello offers evidence that Central Ohio’s Shakespeare-in-the-park troupe remains in good hands.

This is the first season Actors’ Theatre has put together under the leadership of Philip J. Hickman, who was elevated to artistic director following the untimely death of John S. Kuhn early last year. The lineup is promising and challenging, with an Oscar Wilde comedy and a new adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas potboiler in addition to two of the Bard’s strongest works. And if the first production is any guide, that lineup will be brought to the stage with consummate skill.

Directed by Matt Hermes, the troupe’s production of Othello is brisk and passionate. At a key moment, it’s also horrifying—to the extent that parents might want to leave their most impressionable children at home.

Unusually for a Shakespearean tragedy, Othello keeps its focus almost exclusively on its three central characters: Othello, a Moorish military hero who has recently fallen in love and married; Desdemona, the young Venetian woman who has become his wife; and Iago, an ensign who is determined to get revenge after Othello passed him over for promotion. All three are given compelling portrayals in the Schiller Park production.

Desdemona (Lindsey Fisher) finds her new husband (Christopher C. Austin III) is becoming increasingly suspicious
Desdemona (Lindsey Fisher) finds her new husband (Christopher C. Austin III) is becoming increasingly suspicious

As Othello, Christopher C. Austin III is the image of militaristic dignity when he’s functioning as a commanding officer, but he’s so smitten by his new love that he can’t help showing his feelings whenever his bride is around. As Desdemona, Lindsey Fisher is guileless and genteel but just as smitten. The result is that PDAs abound whenever the newlyweds are in the same room.

As Iago, the play’s true protagonist, Matthew Michael Moore comes across as an evil puppeteer. He clearly looks down on those around him and coolly uses their loves, desires and prejudices to his advantage. Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most devious villains, and Moore plays him with subtlety and dark humor.

Updated here to the 1820s—a change that affects the costumes and weapons but otherwise has little impact—the tragedy centers on Iago’s campaign to awaken in Othello the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy. To do this, he invents reasons to suspect Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio (David Tull), the lieutenant who was promoted in Iago’s place.

Two people play willing or unwilling roles in the campaign: Roderigo, who lusts after Desdemona; and Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maid. David Widder-Varhegyi plays the former as a scamp and a gullible fool, while Susan Wismar plays the latter as a decent woman who is cowed into obeying her husband but is appalled when she realizes what he’s up to.

Andrew Weibel’s set seems more elaborate than usual for the outdoor troupe, even including a small fountain. Emily Jeu’s colorful costumes help to define the time and place.

The sound, designed by William Bragg (with Fia Friend operating the sound board), is as clear as I’ve ever heard it at the Schiller amphitheater. At last Friday’s performance, the only distortion occurred when Austin’s Othello shouted his most dramatic lines, overwhelming the amplification. A little restraint may be needed to avoid that problem in the future.

As one would expect in a Shakespearean tragedy, there are deaths. Two of them happen so quickly, and on such a crowded stage, that many viewers will miss them. On the other hand, one murder is the most protracted and horrific act of violence I can remember seeing at the Schiller amphitheater.

Is it excessive? Not at all. It’s merely the final evidence that Actors’ Theatre takes its role as Columbus’s Shakespeare-in-the-park troupe very seriously.

Actors’ Theatre will present Othello through June 19 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: pay what you will (bring a blanket or lawn chair); reserved seats or blankets are available for $20. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

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Will Richard III get into a turf battle with Tony Soprano?

Geoff Wilson (center) plays the conniving title character in Actors’ Theatre’s updated production of Richard III (Actors’ Theatre photo)
Geoff Wilson (center) plays the conniving title character in Actors’ Theatre’s updated production of Richard III (Actors’ Theatre photo)

By Richard Ades

When I heard Actors’ Theatre was going to turn Richard III into a 1950s American crime saga, my first thought was: How are they going to explain the title character’s best-known line: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

Are they going to pretend that 20th-century mobsters have traded their Cadillacs and Lincolns in for four-legged transportation?

As it turns out, the relocated Shakespearean drama runs into problems long before Richard utters the iconic lament. Thankfully, good acting helps to salvage the production, but not before viewers have spent much of the proceedings scratching their heads.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why director Jennifer Feather Youngblood decided to recast Richard and his followers as mobsters. In his attempt to satisfy his lust for power, he’s as ruthless and violent as any Mafia capo.

Unfortunately for Feather Youngblood and her cast, Shakespeare refuses to cooperate. His script is clearly about someone aspiring to be England’s king, not the head of some crime syndicate. The tale is so immersed in British history and geography that you quickly forget it’s been relocated to 20th-century America. It simply comes across as Shakespeare that’s being performed in relatively modern dress.

To make matters worse, viewers apparently aren’t the only ones who don’t buy the hop across the pond. Most of the cast doesn’t, either. Though a few of the smaller roles are played with Jersey accents, Geoff Wilson’s Richard and most of his cohorts and victims speak in standard Shakespearean English.

Complementing the inconsistent accents is the production’s inconsistent tone. Most of the play’s many murders are handled with appropriate solemnity, but one is as darkly comedic as if it had been directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Most inconsistent—and jarring—of all is the recorded music that accompanies each scene change. It seems to have little to do with what’s happening around it.

For example, after Richard sends a pair of assassins to dispatch his trusting brother Clarence (David Ailing), the air is suddenly filled with the strains of Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire. If you’re like me, this will leave you with two responses: (1) “Oh, that’s right, this is supposed to be 1950s America” and (2) “Huh?” It’s hard to fathom why the rockabilly hit is being used to introduce an act of outright villainy.

One gets the feeling that Feather Youngblood envisioned an interpretation of Richard III that was much more sardonic—and, obviously, more American—than it ended up being. The result is that it comes across as a production with multiple, clashing personalities.

As I said, good acting helps to make the show entertaining despite its problems, particularly in Act 2. As for Act 1, I should mention that I didn’t see it at its best, as the performance I saw was plagued with annoying sound problems prior to intermission. But the script itself is also a problem early on: Shakespeare bombards us with so many historical characters and intrigues that we struggle to keep them all straight.

By Act 2, thanks to Richard’s murderous machinations, many of these characters have disappeared. This leaves us free to enjoy the rousing arguments and battles of those who remain.

Throughout, Wilson’s Richard is a powerhouse, exuding evil from every pore of his twisted frame. The rest of the cast also is consistently strong, even though it speaks with inconsistent accents.

Three actors are particularly notable as a trio of wronged women: Vicky Welsh Bragg as former Queen Margaret, Beth Josephsen as current Queen Elizabeth and Christina Yoho as Lady Anne. Male characters who stand out from the crowd include Ailing’s Clarence, Alexander Chilton’s Buckingham, Philip J. Hickman’s King Edward IV and Robert Philpott’s heroic Richmond. In a prominent smaller role, Jason Speicher is memorable as the goon-like Ratcliffe.

Maybe it’s because I share his name, but I have to point out that not everyone believes the actual Richard III was as evil as the Bard portrays him. Nevertheless, he makes a great villain. Even though you almost need a degree in English history to understand his world—and even though Actors’ Theatre further complicates matters by pretending he’s an American gangster—it’s fun to watch him connive his way to the throne.

Especially since you know he’ll eventually have that problem with the horse.

Actors’ Theatre of Columbus will present Richard III through Aug. 2 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: pay what you will (donations accepted at intermission). Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.